columnBy Mercy Ahun
Geneva — Yesterday Bill Gates and Ali Dangote, two billionaires with a passion for immunisation, joined Nigeria's Federal Minister of Health, Prof Onyebuchi Chukwu, in the nation's capital Abuja to launch Nigeria's National Routine Immunisation Strategic Plan.
The ceremony was also attended by dignitaries including His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual head of Muslims in Nigeria, the Chairs of the Senate and House Committees on Health, as well as staff from government, faith-based groups, development partners, civil society organisations and the private sector. But amidst the VIPs, children from Bema Home, a local orphanage, were there to remind all those present why we were there and of the need to invest in immunisation - to secure the future for our children.
I was there representing GAVI's CEO, Dr Seth Berkley, and to give a short address on GAVI's total US$ 700 million commitment to Nigeria since 2001 and the prospects for future support. GAVI has worked with Nigeria for 12 years, supporting the introduction of new and underused vaccines - pentavalent, yellow fever, Meningitis A and measles - and the strengthening of health systems.
Over this period, I have followed the twists and turns, highs and lows in its programme performance. Small peaks in coverage have been interspersed with vaccine shortages, cold chain breakdowns and outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases. Last December the country held a ‘Get back on track' meeting, following a prolonged vaccine shortage earlier that year and in 2011, where the bottlenecks facing the programme were outlined and seven strategies for a programme turnaround were agreed upon. By the end of 2012, I was pleased to inform my colleagues in Geneva that 2013 was looking positive for Nigeria's routine immunisation programme.
The resolve of the leadership and commitment of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency is indeed bearing fruit. As is the use of terms like ‘100% bundling of vaccines and syringes' and its monthly monitoring of coverage data. In terms of data quality we are not yet there, but all partners around the table agree that 2013 coverage is much better than the two previous years and GAVI-supported pentavalent introduction has contributed to the positive turnaround. Health workers who have not been trained for years have had a new lease of knowledge on injection safety and adverse events, supply chain issues have been highlighted and are being addressed, and improvement of data quality is now on everyone's agenda.
I'm certainly coming back in December, to see the last group of states introduce penta and follow-up on how states and Local Government Areas are translating the National Routine Immunisation Strategic Plan into work plans for 2014 and 2015.